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Dickinson, Whitman, and Possibility

To be God-like is to create. Creating can be facilitated by discipline. Dickinson suggests that discipline consists in protecting and cultivating one's passion in a world that tends to impose shame. The fortunate live in communities which value prophets who model discipline that facilitates the passion of creating. Those even more fortunate also have poets who help them, like Dickinson, first to know passion, then to develop their own discipline to protect their passion and help it grow. From Whitman I want to learn how a man does something radically new, that others value. I may be less likely to learn from the professors than from Whitman how to create a role, a life, an anything, that has not been seen before, and is valued.

Added by colin #442 on 2006-02-12. Last modified 2008-03-05 09:01. Originally created 2005-12-06. F0 License: Attribution
Location: World, United States, California, San Diego, SDSU
Topics: literature, personal, poetry, recommended reading
: engl522, literature, poetry, women

Colin Leath

Professor Borgstrom

English 522

6 December 2005

Dickinson, Whitman, and Possibility

I look at Whitman and Dickinson for what I have to learn from them. They respect the self. So do I. I pay to ignore formal rhetoric—this to spend more time with the poets, to embrace their vision within my own. I do not write “traditional literary analyses of an element of a single work.” I do not organize “around a clear thesis statement that is then proven in the body of the essay.” This is not “a narrow topic with great attention to detail.” It is “sweeping overview” that will “result in vagueness and unsubstantiated claims” (Borgstrom). I work from the poems and letters in the anthology. From that incomplete story, I make another.

Dickinson reminds me how to burn. She is “at the White Heat” (3058). This is what to learn from her. I want to burn as I write. Thomas Wentworth Higginson attributes the following to Dickinson: “If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me [. . .] If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way” (2027). The shiver is why I live. Dickinson shows me how and what to give myself to.

Her life is tragic. She tells me never to forget mine is too.

They say that “Time assuages”—

Time never did assuage—

An actual suffering strengthens

As Sinews do, with age—

Time is a Test of Trouble—

But not a Remedy—

If such it prove, it prove too

There was no Malady— (3070)

Here is a story of how she begins to write and the losses that let her live from a letter to Higginson dated 25 April 1862:

You asked how old I was? I made no verse—but one or two—until this winter—Sir—

I had a terror—since September—I could tell to none—and so I sing, as the Boy does by the Burying Ground—because I am afraid— [. . .] When a little Girl, I had a friend, who taught me Immortality—but venturing too near, himself—he never returned—Soon after, my Tutor, died—and for several years, my Lexicon—was my only companion—Then I found one more—but he was not contented I be his scholar—so he left the Land. (3089)

Note that Dickinson’s first poem was published in 1852, and it is estimated she began assembling fascicles in 1858 (Phillips 238). Her friend Susan Gilbert’s relationship to her brother (betrothal 1853; marriage 1856 (Phillips 238)) is another malady. Dickinson’s fire and muse come from these losses and the discipline she develops to channel them.

Power is only Pain—

Stranded, thro’ Discipline,

Till Weights—will hang—

Give Balm—to Giants—

And they’ll wilt, like Men—

Give Himmaleh—

They’ll Carry—Him! (3050)

Her focus passes from her losses and terrors, to the power of her discipline, to revelry in using that power to create beauty amplifying or exceeding that of the world. She also pokes fun, and develops a world view—in short, a voice that started from fear goes on to sing in wider range. My focus is the burn. Her burning, though, is not separate from her cosmology. Her writings suggest that on occasion she thinks she may experience the unions she lost after she dies and goes to Heaven. Alternatively, her writings also suggest that she thinks she has already died (there is repeated reference to a momentous, identity-obliterating event); that she has found and creates heaven on earth; that she does not know.

The most important part of Dickinson’s identity—to understanding the burn I so badly want to feel—is her love: her strong emotional attachment to someone else, where “strong” is weakest understatement.


Empty my Heart, of Thee—

It’s single Artery—

Begin, and leave Thee out—

Simply Extinction’s Date—

Much Billow hath the Sea—

One Baltic—They—

Subtract Thyself, in play,

And not enough of me

Is left—to put away—

“Myself” meant Thee—

Erase the Root—no Tree—

Thee—then—no me—

The Heavens stripped—

Eternity’s vast pocket, picked— (3065-66)

To read the poems in the anthology, one after another, is to experience the emotional equivalent of an intense symphony, coming in waves, tearing. The musical symphony though is too uncontrolled by me, thus too intense; it drags me along, not willing, not unwilling, but I don’t return, because I feel so little control. The poems I can take one by one, line by line, stop in pathos, dwell, continue.

The pace of “Empty my Heart, of Thee—” suggests aptly the state of mind, numb, obliterated, that I have known. “[O]ne Summer, we were Queens—” (3067), what do you do with that kind of loss?

I am guessing there is one first love—the friend who teaches her Immortality—and that she matches or exceeds that first intensity again and again with others, many of whom she loses. The most insistently developed and devastating for me is her loss of what I’m taking to be her friend Susan Gilbert. Why Dickinson burns, though, and what I have forgotten of myself, is not that she lost heaven, but that she knows it. She has respect for what she alone knows and can explore and can show others in herself and in her way of seeing.


I showed her Hights she never saw—

“Would’st Climb,” I said?

She said—“Not so”—

“With me—” I said—With me?

I showed her Secrets—Morning’s Nest—

The Rope the Nights were put across—

And now—“Would’st have me for a Guest?”

She could not find her Yes—

And then, I brake my life—And Lo,

A Light, for her, did solemn glow,

The larger, as her face withdrew—

And could she, further, “No”? (3060-3061)

This confidence in her own heaven, and the awareness she could not realize it in any conventional way, lead her to guard and cultivate her fire. At the same time, she watches others smother as they attempt to arrange the external world such that internally they shall know contentment. The others are corrupted, Dickinson points out, by shame, the causes of which they grow to embrace.


Not with a Club, the Heart is broken

Nor with a Stone—

A Whip so small you could not see it

I’ve known

To lash the Magic Creature

Till it fell,

Yet that Whip’s Name

Too noble then to tell.

Magnanimous as Bird

By Boy descried—

Singing unto the Stone

Of which it died—

Shame need not crouch

In such an Earth as Our’s—

Shame—stand erect—

The Universe is your’s

So what? I had originally been working on an argument that would compare and contrast the concept of Prophet with the concept of Poet in the work of Dickinson and Whitman. The conclusion I came to is that poets focus on creation and possibility while prophets focus on teaching humanity the best way to live. Dickinson and Whitman are remarkable in that they as poets adopt and express a persona that is as or more powerful than the Christian God.


I reckon—when I count at all—

First—Poets—Then the Sun—

Then Summer—Then the Heaven of God—

And then—the List is done—

But, looking back—the First so seems

To Comprehend the Whole—

The Others look a needless Show—

So I write—Poets—All—

Their Summer—lasts a Solid Year—

They can afford a Sun

The East—would deem extravagant—

And if the Further Heaven—

Be Beautiful as they prepare

For Those who worship Them—

It is too difficult a Grace—

To justify the Dream—

Where are we to take this but to share the self-respect Dickinson and Whitman attempt to teach us? The Prophet is clear to his followers about what needs to be done. He may use the techniques of the poet to draw those he teaches into learning his way. But fundamentally the Prophet deals in a fixed, already-created vision. It has a clear end. If the Prophet’s vision does recognize change, that change is called cycle, not unfolding. The Poet deals in becoming.

Prophet Steven Covey says the Christian God has revealed truths that guide humans in “growth toward Godhood” (1). In doing so, Covey presents a “behavioral viewpoint” on the gospels (2). He calls the choosing and rejecting of courses of action in life “the growth process” (2).


If a man loves God more than pleasures, he will grow to become like God. If he loves his worldly pleasures more than God, he will choose and grow in another direction [. . .]

[. . .] Eternal life is essentially that quality of character and personal integrity [. . .] which enables an individual to be so changed [. . .] that his “confidence waxes strong in the presence of God.” If he had not so grown from within, he would feel like a stranger and foreigner and would shun the presence of this perfect and holy Being, and would feel more comfortable with those who have lived a lower order or a lower law, such as found in a terrestrial or a telestial level.

[. . .] The laws of the gospel are the laws of human growth toward godhood. The Sermon on the Mount contains the perfect laws of social, mental, and spiritual health.

When Christ said that it was life eternal to know God, he again taught the behavioral principle that true knowledge is a state of being. (2-3)

Of the Bible Dickinson writes,


Had but the Tale a warbling Teller—

All the Boys would come—

Orpheus’ Sermon captivated—

It did not condemn— (3080)

I think our respect for the poets and their self-aggrandizement is due to their occasional demonstration of achievement of Godhood. The Prophets are concerned with helping humanity develop the mental discipline to alleviate or to cope with human suffering. Their focus is discipline. It may be that Poets move beyond or never achieve having the well-being of humanity as their primary concern.


I reason, Earth is short—

And Anguish—absolute—

And many hurt,

But, what of that?

I reason, we could die—

The best Vitality

Cannot excel Decay,

But, what of that?

I reason, that in Heaven—

Somehow, it will be even—

Some new Equation, given—

But, what of that? (Dickinson 3053)

For Dickinson, discipline allows her to carry the mountain of suffering (3050). She does not dwell on the discipline however, only on the moving Himalaya.


I dwell in Possibility—

A fairer House than Prose—

More numerous of Windows—

Superior—for Doors—

Of Chambers as the Cedars—

Impregnable of Eye—

And for an everlasting Roof

The Gambrels of the Sky—

Of Visiters—the fairest—

For Occupation—This—

The Spreading wide my narrow Hands

To gather Paradise—

To be God-like is to create. Creating can be facilitated by discipline. Dickinson suggests that discipline consists in protecting and cultivating one’s passion in a world that tends to impose shame. The fortunate live in communities which value prophets who model discipline that facilitates the passion of creating. Those even more fortunate also have poets who help them, like Dickinson, first to know passion, then to develop their own discipline to protect their passion and help it grow.

From Whitman I want to learn how a man does something radically new, that others value. I count it success that I find some contentment in pursuing the established roles of student and teacher. I forget, though, that the teachers who have the most to teach may be the writers we study. I may be less likely to learn from the professors than from Whitman how to create a role, a life, an anything, that has not been seen before, and is valued.

I would not give as much attention to creation if the established path led often to views that, though challenging to attain, inspire higher and harder climbing. My uncertainty about the professors’ way may be due to lack of discipline or ability. Or should their sermon be more like Orpheus’? Do those ahead create joyfully or serenely with whole-health, vitality, compassion? Is there life, and love . . . ? Does their prophets’ vision harm? Does the Zeitgeist stunt good? Cooperation and freedom from environmental insults help the qualities I look for thrive. Does their discipline serve them,—or they it? Whitman made a hole in the fence big enough for the rest of us to walk through. Let’s go—

Whitman’s Poet is god-like, and I want to, like Whitman, enclose some of that poet’s old and new, from the orthodox to the avant-garde. Critics who begin to approach Poets in the manner others approach gods include Walter Pater and Matthew Arnold, who “[argue] that culture—the intensely serious appreciation of great works of literature—provides the kind of immanence and meaning that people once found in religion” (Abrams 1063). Earlier, Thomas Carlyle writes, “Men of Letters are a perpetual Priesthood, from age to age, teaching all Men that God is still present in their life.” (qtd. in Abrams 1062; from the fifth lecture of On Heroes and Hero Worship (1841)). Ralph Waldo Emerson writes, “The poets are thus liberating gods. [. . .] They are free, and they make free” (1649). Earlier, Wordsworth embraces elevation in The Prelude:


Prophets of Nature, we to them will speak

A lasting inspiration, sanctified

By reason, blest by faith: what we have loved

Others will love, and we will teach them how,

Instruct them how the mind of Man becomes

A thousand times more beautiful than the earth

On which he dwells, above this Frame of things

(Which ’mid all revolutions in the hopes

And fears of Men doth still remain unchanged)

In beauty exalted, as it is itself

Of quality and fabric more divine. (446-456)

Passing to Whitman’s Poet’s future, from at least the late 19th century onward there has been self-conscious founding of artistic movements with defined foci of a spiritual and social nature. Representative texts include the surrealist manifestos, the futurist manifesto, Jack Keroac’s “Belief & Technique for Modern Prose,” and his corresponding social vision:

In the novel (Dharma Bums (1958)) Kerouac had Gary Snyder (named Japhy Ryder), predict a future time in America when the visions of the poets would revolutionize the country. Talking to Keroac (Ray Smith) outside the Berkeley cottage where Ginsberg (Alvah Goldbook) had lived in the fall of 1955, Japhy says:

“I’ve been reading Whitman, know what he says, Cheer up slaves, and horrify foreign despots, he means that’s the attitude for the Bard, the Zen Lunacy bard of old desert paths, see the whole thing is a world full of rucksack wanderers, Dharma Bums refusing to subscribe to the general demand that they consume production and therefore have to work for the privilege of consuming, all that crap they didn't want anyway such as refrigerators, TV sets, cars, at least new fancy cars, certain hair oils and deodorants and general junk you always see a week later in the garbage anyway, all of them imprisoned in a system of work, produce, consume, work, produce, consume, I see a vision of a great rucksack revolution thousands or even millions of young Americans wandering around with rucksacks, going up to the mountains to pray, making children laugh and old men glad, making young girls happy and old girls happier, all of ’em Zen Lunatics who go about writing poems that happen to appear in their heads for no reason and also by being kind and also by strange unexpected acts keep giving visions of eternal freedom to everybody and to all living creatures, that’s what I like about you Goldbook and Smith [Ginsberg and Kerouac], you two guys from the East Coast which I thought was dead.”

“We thought the West Coast was dead!”

“You’ve really brought a fresh wind around here. . . .” (Charters xxix)

In learning from Whitman how one does something radically new that others value, I here collect excerpts from his preface to the 1855 Leaves of Grass. His poetry states and demonstrates the same concepts. His preface can be read as a declaration of principles of the Poet comparable to what the Sermon on the Mount is for Christians.


This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults you own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body . . . . . . . . The poet shall not spend his time in unneeded work. He shall know that the ground is always ready ploughed and manured . . . . others may not know it but he shall. He shall go directly to the creation. His trust shall master the trust of everything he touches . . . . and shall master all attachment.

The known universe has one complete lover and that is the greatest poet. He consumes an eternal passion and is indifferent which chance happens and which possible contingency of fortune or misfortune persuades daily and hourly his delicious pay. What balks or breaks others is fuel for his burning progress to contact and amorous joy. [. . .] The sea is not surer of the shore or the shore of the sea than he is of the fruition of his love and of all perfection and beauty.

[. . .] The greatest poet forms the consistence of what is to be from what has been and is. He drags the dead out of their coffins and stands them again on their feet . . . . he says to the past, Rise and walk before me that I may realize you. He learns the lesson . . . . he places himself where the future becomes present. The greatest poet does not only dazzle his rays over character and scenes and passions . . . he finally ascends and finishes all . . . he exhibits the pinnacles that no man can tell what they are for or what is beyond . . . . he glows a moment on the extremest verge. He is most wonderful in his last half-hidden smile or frown . . . by that flash of the moment of parting the one that sees it shall be encouraged or terrified afterward for many years. The greatest poet does not moralize or make applications of morals . . . he knows the soul. The soul has that measureless pride which consists of never acknowledging any lessons but its own. But it has sympathy as measureless as its pride and the one balances the other and neither can stretch too far while it stretches in company with the other.

[. . .] A heroic person walks at his ease through and out of that custom or precedent or authority that suits him not. [. . .] [H]e is greatest forever and forever who contributes the greatest original practical example. The cleanest expression is that which finds no sphere worthy of itself and makes one.

The messages of the great poets to each man and woman are, Come to us on equal terms, Only then can you understand us, We are no better than you, What we enclose you enclose, What we enjoy you may enjoy. Did you suppose there could be only one Supreme? We affirm there can be unnumbered Supremes, and that one does not countervail another any more than one eyesight countervails another . . and that men can be good or grand only of the consciousness of their supremacy within them.

[. . .] The American bards shall be marked for generosity and affection and for encouraging competitors . . They shall be kosmos . . without monopoly or secrecy . . glad to pass any thing to any one . . hungry for equals night and day. They shall not be careful of riches and privilege . . . . they shall be riches and privilege . . . . they shall perceive who the most affluent man is. The most affluent man is he that confronts all the shows he sees by equivalents out of the stronger wealth of himself.

[. . .] Whatever would put God in a poem or system of philosophy as contending against some being or influence is also of no account. [. . .] The great master has nothing to do with miracles. He sees health for himself in being one of the mass [. . .] To be under the general law is great for that is to correspond with it.

[. . . Poets] are the voice and exposition of liberty. They out of ages are worthy the grand idea . . . . to them it is confided and they must sustain it. Nothing has precedence of it and nothing can warp or degrade it. The attitude of great poets is to cheer up slaves and horrify despots. The turn of their necks, the sound of their feet, the motions of their wrists, are full of hazard to the one and hope to the other. [. . .] Liberty relies upon itself, invites no one, promises nothing, sits in calmness and light, is positive and composed, and knows no discouragement. [. . .]

The great poets are also to be known by the absence in them of tricks and by the justification of perfect personal candor. [. . .]

There will soon be no more priests. Their work is done. [. . .] A superior breed shall take their place . . . . the gangs of kosmos and prophets en masse shall take their place. A new order shall arise and they shall be the priests of man, and every man shall be his own priest. [. . .] They shall not deign to defend immortality or God or the perfection of things or liberty or the exquisite beauty and reality of the soul. They shall arise in America and be responded to from the remainder of the earth. [. . .]

The poems distilled from other poems will probably pass away. The coward will surely pass away. The expectation of the vital and great can only be satisfied by the demeanor of the vital and great. The swarms of the polished deprecating and reflectors and the polite float off and leave no remembrance. (Preface 2927 37)

 The next step is to “read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of [my] life” (Preface 2927). I could critique and analyze his statement. I could compare this statement to those of Dickinson. It does not call for the critical voice yet, however, but for new possibilities, for dreaming and creating what has never been seen, and for further exploration of Whitman’s demonstration of “the origin of all poems” (Song 25). I would like to delineate Whitman’s kosmos-consciousness as it manifests itself in the rest of his work. I want to consider how this kosmos-consciousness may or may not be applicable to the “problems of life” of different people and peoples (Thoreau 9). As a Poet, I will be a bit of Whitman’s prophet.

Works Cited

Abrams, M. H., ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. 2. New York: Norton, 2000.

---. Introduction. “The Victorian Age (1830-1901).” NAEL 1043-1063.

Borgstrom, Michael. “Essay #2.” 6 Dec. 2005 <http://purl.oclc.org/net/j9k/engl522/essay2prompt.html>.

Charters, Ann, ed. The Portable Beat Reader. New York: Penguin, 1992.

Covey, Stephen R. Spiritual Roots of Human Relations. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1979.

Dickinson, Emily. Letters. Lauter 3081-95.

---. Poems. Lauter 3046-81.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The Poet.” 1847. Lauter 1638-53.

Keroac, Jack. “Belief & Technique for Modern Prose.” Charters 58.

Lauter, Paul, gen. ed. The Heath Anthology of American Literature. 5th ed. Vol. B. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.

Phillips, Elizabeth. Emily Dickinson: Personae and Performance. University Park: Pennsylvania State U P, 1996.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden, or Life in the Woods. Mineola, NY: Dover, 1995.

Whitman, Walt. Preface to the 1855 Edition. Leaves of Grass. Lauter 2923-37.

---. Song of Myself. Lauter 2937-82.

Wordsworth, William. Book Fourteenth. Conclusion. The Prelude, or Growth of a Poet’s Mind. 1798-1839; 1850. Abrams 377-82.

Colin Leath <>    

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